Friday, August 15, 2008

Uji Kintoki

Day twenty-five: Uji Kintoki
Kyu-Iwasaki-Tei teahouse, ¥600

The Kyu-Iwasaki-Tei house near Ueno Park is an extravagant cultural mash-up built for a founder of Mitsubishi financial group during the Meiji period. Architect Josiah Condor was born in London in 1852, but lived in Japan from 1877 until his death in 1920. Somewhere he along the way he absorbed the influence of enough other cultures for Persian, Tuscan, Jacobean, and Pennsylvania Dutch elements to be readily identifiable in the house's facade and interiors.

The complex once comprised some 20 buildings on nearly 50000m2, but although the property was designated as a National Cultural Asset in 1952, both the building and the grounds have been ruthlessly pruned. Only three of the original buildings still stand: a detached "Swiss Gothic Cottage" housing the billiards room, the western-style mansion were guests were once received, and butted up against it, a large Japanese-style house where the original family actually lived.

Today a large part of the Japanese house has been given over to a tourist-friendly tearoom (in sparsely-furnished Japanese houses this kind of coversion is a mere matter of giving the tatami mats a good sweep and setting out low tables and cushions). From the limited menu I chose Uji Kintoki, an pile of shaved ice topped with green tea syrup, a dollop of sweetened red beans, and a clutch of white dango dumplings, a perfect energy-booster on a sweltering day.

I placed my order at the register and headed for one of the empty tables at the back when a woman sitting at the prime front table (maximum breeze!) waved me over and insisted that I join her and her husband. He spoke a little English and we all had a grand time muddling through a conversation about my travel plans and the merits of Japanese sweets.

After years of studying the subtleties of ethnographic interviewing, my research technique has devolved to a single question: "So, what is your number-one favorite sweet?"  This lovely even drew me a little sketch of hers, which, sadly, is only available for a few days in early spring.

No comments: